NEW YORK // Myanmar's announcement that it will release political prisoners before elections next year has fuelled the optimism of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, that his recent trip to the south-east Asian country was not a wasted journey. But analysts warn the secretary general to treat the ruling junta's words with caution, saying Myanmar's generals are unlikely to free dissidents and have little interest in embracing political reforms.
Myanmar's opposition party said yesterday it, too, was sceptical the military rulers would release political prisoners, despite the new assurances given to the UN. Addressing the Security Council on Monday, Myanmar's ambassador to the UN, Than Swe, said his government is "processing to grant amnesty to prisoners on humanitarian grounds and with a view to enabling them to participate in the 2010 general elections".
The envoy did not say how many prisoners would be released, or when, or whether they would include the country's most notable dissident: the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. Mr Ban described the junta's pledge as "encouraging", but cautiously added he would "have to continue to follow up how they will implement all the issues raised" during his visit of July 3 and 4.
Mr Ban's second trip to Myanmar since becoming UN secretary general was initially branded a failure after his request to meet Ms Suu Kyi in person was rejected by the junta, which has ruled the country since 1962. His request to free all political prisoners, including Ms Suu Kyi, who is currently on trial, also appeared to have failed when he flew out of the country, complaining he was "deeply disappointed" by the visit.
Although analysts recognise the junta is now committed to freeing some of its dissidents - estimated to number about 2,100 - they also point to Myanmar's track record in deceiving its critics. "We've seen these kinds of promises before," said Elaine Pearson, an Asia expert for the advocacy group, Human Rights Watch. "If it's legitimate, that would be good news. But in the past we have seen them release 6,000 prisoners, of which only a handful have been political, and some of those were rearrested within weeks."
Nyan Win, a spokesman for the National League for Democracy, Ms Suu Kyi's party, said: "We would welcome it if they released political prisoners in an amnesty, but very few political prisoners have been included in previous amnesties." Suzanne DiMaggio, a policy expert from the New York-based Asia Society, described the likelihood of the generals' follow-through on their promise as "a big if", but urged Mr Ban to continue his trademark style of quiet diplomacy.
"Mr Ban's personal intervention is of the utmost importance," said Ms DiMaggio, highlighting the UN chief's success in persuading the junta to permit the entry of foreign aid workers after Cyclone Nargis, which left 150,000 dead in May last year. During this week's briefing to the Security Council, Mr Ban called again on the generals to ensure "inclusive, free and fair" elections next year, later asking them to allow Ms Suu Kyi to take part.
"The world is now watching closely whether they will choose to act in the best interest of their country or ignore our concerns and expectations and the needs of their people," Mr Ban said. Ms Suu Kyi was transferred from her lakeside home to Yangon's notorious Insein prison in May to face trial after a man swam uninvited to the property, and faces up to five years in jail if convicted. Ms Suu Kyi, 64, has been under house arrest or in detention for 13 of 19 years since the junta refused to recognise her party's landslide victory in Myanmar's last elections, in 1990.
Critics say next year's elections, the final part of a seven-step "road map" to democracy, will be a sham designed to give legitimacy to the current authorities and entrench nearly half a century of army rule in the country. Ms Pearson said Myanmar's rulers have continued cracking down on political activists, notably monks and students during the so-called Saffron Revolution of 2007. They already have the election "sewn up", with one-quarter of the seats reserved for the military, she added.
The Security Council remains deadlocked on Myanmar, with the permanent veto-wielding member China preventing the 15-nation body from taking decisive action. Analysts also argue that such key Myanmar trading partners as India and Singapore should exert diplomatic pressure. "It's time for Security Council members to speak with the same voice and call for the release of all political prisoners," Ms Pearson said. "We need to look at other measures that will force the generals to the negotiating table, including targeted financial sanctions against leading members of the regime."
firstname.lastname@example.org * Additional reporting by AFP